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Between La Roja and a hard place

The Spanish Football Federation and Brazil engage in patriot games over Atlético Madrid’s Costa

Diego Costa's form this season has interested his adopted country. Ampliar foto
Diego Costa's form this season has interested his adopted country.

The apparently imminent inclusion of Atlético Madrid striker Diego Costa in Spain's national soccer side has sparked a debate within the sport on whether players should represent countries other than that of their birth. The Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) on Thursday sent a second formal petition to its Brazilian counterpart (CFB) to issue a document confirming that Costa has never played for the Canarinhoin an official match. The first request was sent on October 4 but no answer was received. If it does not do so, world soccer body Fifa itself will step into the breach next Tuesday to ask for the paperwork if the CFB again ignores the RFEF's entreaty.

Brazil, it seems, is playing for time after the Atlético striker's formidable start to the season has seen him outscore Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Spanish league. Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is thought to be keen to have a word in Costa's ear about his decision, despite not calling up the forward for this international week. To date, the player has only featured in two friendly matches for Scolari's team. The tug-of-war is made more acute by the fact that next year's World Cup is to be hosted by Brazil.

Costa, born in Brazil but granted Spanish citizenship this summer, is for some purists spiritually ineligible to represent La Roja. This is not a new argument but neither is the incorporation of non-Spaniards into the national team: Spain has been importing talent since the 1920s, including illustrious players such as Alfredo di Stéfano — who played for three different countries — Ferenc Puskas and Laszlo Kubala, who also represented three national teams and went on to coach Spain.

Former Roja coach Luis Aragonés, who created the idea of "Spanishness" in the national side, believes the debate is absurd. "The question of loving a shirt is not one for the coach or for the team. It is a question for the player, of where he wants to be. A player feels the colors as soon as he puts on the jersey for club or country. They feel it because they want to play as well as they can. In the case of [2008 European Championship winner] Marcos Senna, who was born in Brazil, he wanted to play for Spain. The homeland of a player is the shirt he represents. This debate is impossible to resolve! A footballer, when he takes to the field, is like a bullfighter. What does it matter where they come from? They just want to leave on the shoulders of their admirers. Nationalistic debates should remain outside of soccer because in the game they make no sense. You don't call a player because he is more or less Spanish than another. You call him because he wants to be in the team."

Nationalistic debates should remain outside of soccer because in the game they make no sense"

Argentinean defender Mariano Pernía was 29 when Aragonés called him up for the 2006 World Cup: "The phone went in the middle of the night," he recalls. "I was in Argentina on holiday and I was asleep. He congratulated me on the season I'd had with Getafe and asked if I wanted to be in the team. I said yes immediately and thanked him and, typical of Luis, he said there was nothing to thank him for because I'd earned it. The same day I flew to Spain and joined up with the team. I had a few doubts because I thought maybe I'd feel left out but the reception of the players, the fans and the press was wonderful. Raúl was the first to meet me and he introduced me to the group. They made me feel like one of them. Soccer teams are like that. If you bring something to the group and put the team ahead of personal interests, you'll be treated by teammates as if you've known them all your life. If you don't do this, you'll be rejected even if you're from the same country."

Among the fondest memories of Donato Gama de Silva, born in Rio in 1962, is his debut with Spain in Seville. "That game against Denmark in 1994," he recalls. "I will never forget it. We won 3-0, I was one of the best players on the pitch and at the end of the game the fans gave me a standing ovation and chanted my name. The affection of the Spanish was overwhelming. I'm sure if I had played for Brazil, it would have been different. I'd have been just another player. I had never seen an ovation like the one they gave me. As far as I am concerned, playing for Spain was the best decision I made in my life."

Donato was the first naturalized Brazilian to play for Spain and he is proud to "have opened the door" for others to follow suit, such as Catanha and Senna. Rubén Cano also identifies with Costa. "My situation was the same as Diego's, except when I chose to play for Spain the team hadn't qualified for the World Cup. That is the peak for any player. I was naturalized in 1974, four months after signing for Elche," he remembers. Like Costa, Cano would become a prolific striker for Atlético. "My dad was Spanish, born in Almería, in the tiny village of Purchena. I had an informal chat with the Argentinean Football Federation but they never committed themselves. Spain called me up and as I was playing in Spain, I thought it would be more honest and fair to represent the country."

As far as I am concerned, playing for Spain was the best decision I made in my life"

Destiny led to Cano scoring the goal that sealed Spain's qualification for the 1978 World Cup, which was hosted by Argentina. "That's the game I remember most, against Yugoslavia in Belgrade. It was revenge, because they had prevented Spain from qualifying in 1970. It was a pitched battle. Juanito got hit with a bottle and Pirri was injured..."

However, Cano remembers his time with La Roja with a note of bitterness: "At that time, there wasn't as much passion for the national team in Spain. Hardly anyone came to watch the games. Regionalism in sport was very acute and in some regions they were against the national team. I witnessed it first-hand. In Salamanca the entire stadium shouted at me "Indians out!" It wasn't racism, but because I played for Atlético [nicknamed The Indians]. Because of this I asked Kubala not to pick me again after the 1978 World Cup. In 1979 people didn't take the team seriously. I remember games in Madrid when just four madmen would turn up."

Michu, who recently earned a call-up after excelling in the Premier League with Swansea, thinks Costa would be a valuable addition to the squad. "I've played with him for Rayo and Celta. As a footballer, he's in his prime. He's a great lad and I like him a lot. I don't know if he's going to play for Spain and I won't talk about a hypothetical situation, but I can tell you what he's like as a person: he's a good guy and he would have no problems fitting in here."

The ever-prudent Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque, wouldn't be drawn ahead of Spain's World Cup qualifiers against Belarus on Friday (10pm, Telecinco) and Georgia next Tuesday, but he would certainly not turn down the chance to field Costa having striven to incorporate a pure center-forward into the side to complement Spain's passing game and occasional use of a false 9: "He's got all the attributes to be a Spain player," Del Bosque noted.

Whether that is enough for the purists — or if Costa's head will yet be turned by his country of birth — remains to be seen.

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